For decades, Canada’s indigenous people have warned that a disproportionately large number of their women and girls were vanishing or being killed, that police investigations of these crimes were careless, and that their pleas for help were being ignored.
On Monday, the government-appointed commission that has been investigating the claims announced its explosive conclusion: Canada’s indigenous women and girls are “under siege,” and their deaths and disappearances amount to “a race-based genocide.”
The Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its final report at a morning ceremony in Gatineau, Quebec, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and family members of victims.
“Genocide is the sum of the social practices, assumptions and actions detailed within this report,” the commission concluded. It laid out in detail over more than 1,200 pages how a mix of “appalling apathy” and “colonialist structures” has fueled a “national tragedy” centuries in the making.
“This is not what Canada is supposed to be about,” the commission wrote. “It is not what it purports to stand for.”
The commission itself has drawn criticism for staff turnover and an alleged lack of transparency. Critics say the process won’t bring justice because the panel wasn’t granted the authority to compel police to reopen cold cases.
Trudeau, who promised a “total renewal” of Canada’s relationship with its 1.6 million indigenous people, launched the $92 million inquiry shortly after assuming office in 2015.
“This is an uncomfortable day for Canada, but it is an essential day,” he said Monday. He promised to review the report and to implement a plan. The report “will not be placed on a shelf to collect dust,” he promised, to applause.
The commission, headed by Marion Buller, British Columbia’s first female indigenous judge, crisscrossed the country for more than two years to take testimony from roughly 2,400 witnesses, including survivors and family members of victims.
They described the bodies of sisters, mothers and daughters being dredged out of rivers or found along a desolate stretch of highway in British Columbia where so many indigenous women and girls have disappeared or been killed that it’s called the “Highway of Tears.”
Witnesses told the commission that police were slow to launch missing-person investigations and quick to label unexplained deaths as drownings, suicides or drug overdoses, even when evidence suggested foul play.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported 1,181 cases of murdered or missing indigenous women and girls from 1980 to 2012. Indigenous women are six times as likely to be victims of homicide than non-indigenous women, the government agency Statistics Canada reported in 2017.
But those figures could be a gross undercount, according to the commission, which concluded that “no one knows the exact number” because thousands of deaths and disappearances “have likely gone unrecorded.”
The commission said colonial violence, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia against indigenous women and girls have become so woven into the fabric of their lives that many have become accustomed to it.
Contributing to the violence, the commission said, are historical trauma from government-directed family separation policies, residential schools and land dispossession; social and economic marginalization; and a lack of willingness among Canadian institutions to change.
An “absolute paradigm shift” is needed “to dismantle colonialism within Canadian society,” the commission said.
Among its 231 recommendations, the commission advised creating an independent task force to investigate unresolved cases, increasing punishments for violent offenses when the victims are indigenous women, and granting indigenous languages the same official status as English and French.
“Today, we hold up a mirror to Canada,” Buller said. She said the report’s action items were not just “recommendations” but “legal imperatives.”
Trudeau promised change.
“I know and you know that we need to fix the way things work in this country,” he said. “We must continue to decolonize our existing structures, and the racism, sexism and economic inequality that has allowed such violence against indigenous women and girls to prevail must be eradicated.”
Canada’s indigenous people long called for a probe into missing and slain women and girls. Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, said the issue had been “studied to death” and was not “really high” on his government’s “radar.”
The death in 2014 of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was found in a Manitoba river wrapped in a blanket and weighed down with rocks, galvanized public attention. In the 24 hours before her death, she met with social workers, police and emergency room doctors, but no one kept her safe.
“The fact that this national inquiry is happening now doesn’t mean that indigenous people waited this long to speak up,” the commission said. “It means it took this long for Canada to listen.”
Not everyone felt heard.
Danielle Ewenin said she attended a commission hearing in Saskatchewan in 2017 to testify about her sister.
Eleanor “Laney” Ewenin was found dead in a field on the outskirts of Calgary in 1982 at age 23. Police filed a report under an incorrect name; the case remains unsolved.
Ewenin said she decided to testify because she “wanted to make a difference for indigenous women.”
But she said the inquiry operated under a patriarchal and colonial model that was not responsive to families, and its “mismanagement, bungling, ineptness and incompetence” doomed it to fail.
Ewenin said frequent calls to her caseworker, responsible for helping her track down police and coroner’s reports, went unanswered. She eventually obtained the records herself, she said, but was told it was too late to include them in the inquiry’s forensic audit of police files.
“I’m having a hard time disassociating myself from my feelings of anger and betrayal and injustice,” she said. “They did not find or honor the truth with my sister.”
Calls from family members of victims to reset the inquiry in 2017 went unheeded.
Buller told The Washington Post last year that the commission had struggled with communicating with families. She blamed early missteps on bureaucratic challenges and the initial two-year deadline. (Buller requested a two-year extension. The government granted six more months.)
In a foreword to the report, Buller criticized the government for failing to grant the full extension, saying “many truths” will go “unspoken and unknown” as a result.
The commission said the additional time would have allowed the forensic audit team to look at more files, such as those pertaining to Ewenin’s sister.
The commission said police blamed victims and employed racist stereotypes in interactions with indigenous women. It singled out the RCMP for failing to provide all of the files it subpoenaed.
Anita Ross testified before the commission in Thunder Bay, Ontario, about the death of her 16-year-old daughter. Delaine Copenace went missing in 2016 and was found dead weeks later in a lake near her home. Police were late to investigate her disappearance, Ross said, and labeled her death an accidental drowning — a conclusion she rejects.
Ross watched the ceremony on television. She was glad to see Trudeau attending with his wife, she said, and was “trying to feel optimistic.”
The question is whether the government will act.
“We’re all hopeful, but we’re just wondering if it will happen,” she said. “People say things, but will they follow through?”